'Rise of the Guardians" is both family film and exposé, pulling back the curtain on our favorite holiday symbols. Most shocking truths: Santa Claus looks like he spends more time at the gym than in the toy factory, and the tooth fairy has been outsourcing her work.
Kids will have to learn the truth sooner or later, and the new DreamWorks Animation film has a spunky charm, even as the story gets lost in a flurry of action and emotional cues. Children will enjoy the barrage of visual stimulation, and adults will appreciate the fact that there's no bathroom humor or back-talking teenagers in the North Pole.
It also does nothing to sully what has been a very good year for mainstream animation. From "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" to "Brave" to "Wreck-It Ralph" and now "Guardians," Hollywood seems to be embracing different styles and new ideas.
Even the stop motion "Frankenweenie" technically a remake was essentially a new movie.
"Rise of the Guardians" begins with Jack Frost joining the Guardians, a group of super-powered holiday symbols including Santa, Easter Bunny, Sandman and Tooth Fairy. (Prospect betting odds for the new character in "Rise of the Guardians 2": St. Patrick's Day Leprechaun: 2-1 Mother Nature: 6-1 Great Pumpkin 500-1.)
Innocence and joy are threatened by the Boogeyman, and from there the plot comes pretty close to mirroring this summer's "The Avengers" movie. Mostly in a good way.
"Rise of the Guardians" is at its best when it slows down, especially in one of the holiday-themed set pieces. The North Pole is particularly enthralling, with its comic relief elves and furry toy-making monsters that must have been the result of filmmaker demands to "Make them look more like Wilford Brimley!" Alec Baldwin (trying a Russian accent) as Santa, and Jude Law as the Boogeyman lead the solid voice cast.
The film is based loosely on the William Joyce book "The Guardians of Childhood," and it retains much of the storybook charm. There's a dark edge (that's a warning to parents with very small children), and no shortage of poignant moments Frost's last-ditch attempt to keep a child's faith in the Easter Bunny is particularly poetic.
The action is less successful, with chase scenes and battles that are underwhelming. Fights become repetitive. The Boogeyman summons one too many black clouds that morph into horses.
Part of the problem: The filmmakers don't always make the rules especially clear. Even at the end of the film, Santa's powers are a little vague. (He whips out a couple of swords when the bad guy shows up, but no "Silent Night, Deadly Night"-style bloodletting occurs.) All that's certain is in a bar fight, you want the Easter Bunny getting your back, while the Tooth Fairy is close to useless.
Speaking of the Tooth Fairy, she's pretty cheap in this film. Unless those were silver doubloons, her underpaid workforce appears to be handing out quarters.
If the Tooth Fairy is giving out dollars to your kids, point to this film as bad news that deflation is imminent.
Rise of the Guardians
★ ★ 1/2
Voice cast: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law and Isla Fisher.
Director: Peter Ramsey
Rated PG (thematic elements and some mildly scary action)